Tag Archives: writing

Writing women, and writing for women: an interview with Adrienne Dellwo

I have frequent conversations with clients about gender in writing. It is fair to say that I have to open some male writers’ eyes on the subject, which of course is twofold: presenting women as realistic and interesting characters, and presenting writing that will have above average appeal (thus, marketability) to women. In short: one disregards women, as an audience, to one’s own detriment.

Rather than tell you why all that was so, I thought I’d seek a more expert opinion. I first met Adrienne Dellwo serving on panels at a science fiction convention. We were fellow travelers in the freelancing field, but she has since expanded her creative horizons into fiction and cinema. She was gracious enough to agree to an interview, and she was as candid as I could have hoped. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed participating.

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JK: Adrienne, could you go into a little detail about your literary career?

AD: I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I rarely finished even a short story, let alone a novel. Part of the problem was that I didn’t feel like I knew how the whole process was supposed to work.

I started going to conventions for the writing panels, and that really helped. Then, after a panel on World Building, I started thinking about what my world would look like, if I were to build one. A scene flashed through my head, and it became the opening scene to Through the Veil.

That was the first book I finished, and I eventually found a publisher for it. I now have three books out and just finished my fourth last night, actually. And I have two more that are partially written.

Congratulations. This helps the readership understand why I felt you would be the perfect subject for this interview. To some degree it is a sort of self-check. I wanted to write a blog post about writing women (as characters), and writing for women. Then I realized that my idea was stupid, and that it would be far more productive to ask an actual woman.

LOL! Thanks.

First, I want to be clear about generalization. I don’t think any rule, anywhere, applies to everyone in a given group. At most, we might reasonably say that a given generalization is more often true than not. And of course, like everyone else, you are not acquainted with the whole of the population, so you speak from your own circles and experiences. Do those sound like reasonable caveats with which to preface a discussion of the majority of the human population?

Yes, they do.

Great. Let’s start with me running past you some of my longstanding admonitions to clients. If you think any of them are incomplete or flawed, I’d like to know how they can be corrected. First admonition: on average, women are more likely than men to be readers, thus (knowing nothing about the content) the audience is likely to be majority female. Do you agree?

Based on studies and surveys I’ve seen, yes, I believe it’s true that women are more likely to be readers, so it makes sense that they’d consume most of the books, regardless of genre.

The goal there was to hammer home the urgency of the question; if they value their marketability and reviews, they had better reckon with that reality. Running off the majority of one’s audience strikes me as a terrible notion.

Absolutely!

Second admonition: most women have an easy time perceiving the difference between presenting sexist characters (which may be simple realism) and an obviously sexist author (which is a correctable flaw). True in your experience?

Oh, yeah. If most of the characters, the female ones in particular, are presented realistically and just one character is a jerk, that’s a lot different from the sexist representations of women that fill some books. Or, rather, that show up in the single token female character who’s surrounded by alpha males.

Would you say that the latter case is the more common? The only woman on the baseball team, or in the office, et cetera?

Definitely. In a ton of mainstream novels, the only developed female character is the protagonist’s love interest.

So we aren’t talking about just a quality problem. It’s as much a quantity problem.

Quantity, in my experience, might be the bigger problem. We’re so accustomed to it that it’s considered normal. Think of the Smurfs–a bunch of males, plus Smurfette. In the Air Bud movies, they’re all male puppies except for the single female. The male dogs have names that reflect their interests, while the female just gets a girlie name, as if she doesn’t get interests at all beyond being feminine. It’s her entire personality.

Then it continues on–how many developed female characters do we get in DaVinci Code, for example?

It’s been a long time since I read that. I don’t remember many.

That’s because there’s one. The love interest.

And it’s one thing if you’re in a male-dominant environment. You can’t slip women into the submarine in Hunt for Red October, for example. Historically, they just weren’t there. But in other settings, women are chronically under-represented.

If authors would include more female characters, we’d get more interesting ones because they’d need to give them actual personalities to distinguish one from the other. Instead, we get one representation, and she’s basically the same in book after book.

Of course, we have authors who write plenty of wonderful and varied women. I’m talking about a subset of mainstream male authors who tend to get a lot of popular attention and have big-budget movies made.

Can you paint me the picture of this fatigued representation? Just so that my clients and readership can know when they find themselves sliding into inadequate portrayal?

She’s tall, slender, beautiful, and smart. But not smarter than the protagonist, of course. She wears high heels and glasses (the glasses let you know she’s smart!) and pulls her hair back when she wants to be taken seriously, then takes it out of the bun or ponytail and gives it a dramatic shake when it’s time to be sexy. Because she has two modes–serious and sexy.

Most of the time, she’s too busy being serious to have any interest in a romantic relationship, and she may even be resistant to men because of a bad experience in her past (probably a boss or professor), but the protagonist is so manly and brilliant that she’s unable to resist.

So in essence, she is a prop? Like a fake sword or a glucose whiskey bottle?

Precisely. She’s there to give the man someone to bounce brilliant ideas off of, and to fall in love with him.

Another trope that’s layered onto this one is that she’s also a martial artist. That means she can fight well enough to stay alive until the man can save her, and she’s super in shape which makes her more sexually appealing.

Then the author says, “Hey, she’s smart and strong–I write strong female characters!” Um, no. You write fantasy-fulfillment props.

I have a client with an upcoming book where his adventurers, five in number, include one woman. But she’s the fighter and sergeant, and she doesn’t have any love interest. She spends a fair bit of time kicking ass, and speaking of which, her own is not exactly hourglassy. But she’s got enough heart to feel like her own person, not a prop. Sound promising?

It does. Putting a woman in a group with four men and not having her in love with any of them is practically revolutionary.

My client worked hard at this, and it showed.

One more admonition: the most telling cues to the author’s outlook are found when the author portrays women, and in particular interactions between men and women. Agree?

It’s definitely a big one. Something more interesting is interaction between female characters, though, because it’s surprisingly rare and all too often deals with jealousy or commiserating over a man.

In other words, they are not so much about the women, but male-centric. The connection/conflict would not exist without him.

Exactly.

In Through the Veil and its sequels, I have a spiritual order that’s all women. They’re not wives or mothers, their primary interest in life isn’t romance or domesticity. Taking them out of those roles is freeing for me because I can make them individuals on a level I’m not accustomed to seeing.

Because, having grown up with prop women who have no agenda of their own, I have to watch myself. It’s easy to write what you’ve seen and read a million times.

It’s why propaganda works.

So true! I hope younger authors will have an easier time avoiding these issues. In my experience, they’re far more aware of the problems entrenched in media, and therefore more able to avoid the ruts.

In the ’80s, none of us thought Breakfast Club or Revenge of the Nerds or Top Gun were problematic. When I watch ’80s movies with my kids, though, they’re outraged. So we’re getting better, as a society.

Reader by reader, author by author.

Yep. And generation by generation. When I paused The Breakfast Club to talk to my daughter about some of the issues, she told me what was wrong with it. She was all of 12 at the time. Kids are savvy these days, and that tells me that even if authors keep writing hollow women, they’ll stop being successful.

One suspects that certain parents have laid better groundwork than others. I know Joe [her husband], and I’m sure they get mutual message reinforcement on gender issues.

LOL! So true! My kids don’t get traditional gender roles at all. We both cook and clean and buy groceries and pay bills and fix things and create things. Because of my health issues, I stay home and Joe goes to work–but while I’m home, I’m writing medical articles and books and screenplays. On film sets, sometimes he directs, sometimes I direct. So yeah, my kids think any kind of artificial gender roles are just weird.

Where possible, I counsel my male clients to make sure that some of their first readers include women who can offer feedback, but that alone is unlikely to correct inherent biases and flaws. What would you suggest they do in order to write better women, and write better for women?

At conventions and in writing circles, you hear a lot about “writing strong female characters.” I think we need to stop focusing on that, because then we get into definitions of what strength is and what female means. That’s all problematic! Meanwhile, when you read male characters written by female authors, you don’t run into the same issues as with the reverse.

We need to go back to basics. We write good characters when we treat each one as an individual with their own goals, dreams, fears, etc. If you’re looking at a female character that way, rather than as just a love interest or sex object, you’re going to be fine.

The prop women we discussed earlier have one major trait in common–the male protagonist’s goal becomes her goal the moment they meet, whether she has any prior motivation to pursue it. It becomes her goal because he is her true goal, and she’ll mold herself into the proper shape to fit.

So if a man is having trouble creating a decent female character, I’d suggest an exercise–write a short story about that woman, earlier in her life, where she’s the protagonist and there’s not a love interest. Once you see her as a full human being, she’ll come across that way on the page. Or write the character as a male buddy and then change the pronouns.

And if you think, “But I’d have to change everything about the character to change the gender,” then you’ve found the real issue you need to work on.

Because too many of these female props-as-characters have too many qualities that are either a) female-specific, and/or b) centered around a male?

Exactly. And here’s the thing–when women write male characters, they write them the same way they write female characters! I think about his goals, his challenges, his insecurities, how he views the world based on not just gender, but environment, circumstance, culture, and up-bringing.

All of us are much more than gender, so when you start thinking about “how do I write a woman,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating a stereotypical woman rather than a realistic one.

Granted. At the same time, I think some of them mean well. They just don’t know what they’re doing, at least in my observed experience. My theory about that is that they have not spent enough time in life trying to see the world through her eyes.

That’s the crux of it–they haven’t examined her as a character in her own right. And I understand how confusing it must be for a lot of men. They put women in the story and get criticism for not creating believable women, so they heap on more “feminine” traits only to get more criticism. I get it, I really do. But it all boils down to the same thing–stop trying to write “a female character” and write fully realized characters who happen to be female. It’s one characteristic of many, not the defining characteristic.

I’ve sat in panels where authors try to define both strength and what it means to be a woman, and the only things that came out of it were stereotypes and generalizations. When you apply them to the whole of human experience, they fall short. I have a lot of traits that are considered traditionally masculine. I know plenty of men who have traits that are traditionally feminine. One of my children rejects gender constructs completely and considers themself neither male nor female.

Then you’ve got gender-fluid people and trans people–gender is a spectrum, not a fixed point. And the longer we go without fixed gender expectations in our society, the more we’ll see that manifested.

I suspect that, beginning with the current generation of children and after, we will see that reflected in how they write.

I’m seeing that already. There’s a great young author named Kaye Thornbrugh who refuses to write unhealthy relationships like you see in so many popular books targeted at girls and young women. I’m in a writing group with several recent college graduates, and they’re writing with an understanding of the gender spectrum that turns everything on its head.

Can you name a couple of male authors who do an excellent job portraying women and gender dynamics? What specifically do they do well?

A lot of people might be surprised by this answer, but I think Stephen King does an exceptionally good job of writing women. I’ve read a majority of his books, and I’ve never felt like a female character was a prop, or under-developed. The reason is that he’s good at developing all of his characters, regardless. He sees them all as full-fledged human beings, and they come across that way. Read Gerald’s Game or Rose Madder or Lisey’s Story to see examples of female protagonists done well. In It, he captures children perfectly. When you read Insomnia, you’re certain you understand what it’s like to be elderly. And it’s all because he doesn’t rest on stereotypes and generalizations. He understands people, period.

Backing up a little bit, there’s been a shift in the way female characters are discussed. At one of my first cons, I heard the criticism that a lot of “strong females” were just “men with boobs,” because they weren’t written any differently from men. Everyone knew it was problematic to define how women should be written, but no one questioned the criticism itself.

At my most recent convention, I saw that criticism questioned because the criticism itself uses a narrow lens of what it means to be female. Sure, you can make generalizations about how women tend to be more nurturing, or how female friendship is different from male friendship, but then you’ve got swaths of women who fall outside of that definition. I have a high school friend who joined the Marines, has never gotten married or had kids, and fits in better in traditionally masculine environments. She lifts weights, goes rock climbing, and jumps out of airplanes for fun. At the same time, she’s heterosexual, loves wearing ultra-feminine clothes when she’s not at work, and decorates her house with floral prints.

Heh. Try pigeonholing all that!

Right? You can’t!

And none of it is because she was abused or sexually assaulted, or because she grew up without a mother, or because she can’t have babies. That’s just who she is. She’s also pagan and has a degree in physics. Wouldn’t you rather read a book with her in it than with some cardboard cutout in high heels and glasses?

Definitely. She sounds intriguing.

We’re all drawn to things that are unusual and unexpected. So create weird women. Create the oddball who can’t be pigeonholed and doesn’t want to be.

Draw from the weirdness inside you and the weirdness in people around you. That’s what’s real.

A science fiction convention could supply enough relevant material for a lifetime of writing.

Hahaha! Without a doubt!

So, Stephen King. Any other men doing above average?

I have a good friend named Bracken MacLeod who’s an amazing author and writes great women. Check out his book called Mountain Home. (Stranded is also amazing but intentionally male-focused, as it’s about toxic masculinity and its impact on men.)

The shared superhero series I write for has a lot of great female characters. It’s the Just Cause universe, and it was started by Ian Thomas Healy. (I know that sounds self-serving, but I wouldn’t be writing for the series if I didn’t admire a lot about it.)

Fair enough. I would also like to note for the reader that it took you longer than anticipated to ponder on this. Do I interpret that fairly to say that the number of major, popular male writers doing a good job on gender is a bit bleak?

That’s fair. I’m browsing through my Kindle and finding a dearth of male authors, and the only big-name ones are Stephen King, his son Joe Hill, Patrick Rothfuss, and George R.R. Martin.

Martin is a controversial one in this area, with some people thinking he created a sexist world in order to show women (and other oppressed people) overcoming it, and other people thinking he himself is sexist. I’m having trouble remembering much about most of Rothfuss’ female characters. I’m not sure whether that’s his fault or mine. LOL

Let the record reflect that the interviewee, like most readers, has voted with her wallet. A thing for prospective and evolving authors to consider.

That is the final arbiter, isn’t it?

If not the final one, it is surely of importance even if it is not the primary determinant of quality.

Very true.

I should mention Erik Scott de Bie, as well. He’s got some great women in his books.

In young adult, Cory Doctorow.

Cory Doctorow I’ve heard of.

His books Little Brother and Homeland are the best YA I’ve read, and as a YA author, I’ve read a lot. They should be taught in every high school. Sorry to go off-topic, but he deals with themes of personal freedom and government over-reach in the name of safety, all with near-future technology and phenomenal character development. Great books.

I feel like I should mention female authors who provide great examples of female characters, as well. High on my list is Diana Rowland, who writes the Kara Gillian/Demon Summoner series as well as the White Trash Zombie series. Her women are tough and quirky and fully developed. I also like Lish McBride, A.G. Howard, and Jennifer Brozek.

And Mercedes M. Yardley. She’s brilliant.

Now I’d like to know who among the men is doing it wrong, and how they are blowing it. The more prominent the names, the greater the percentage of our readership that will relate.

I stopped reading Dan Brown and John Grisham a long time ago, largely because of their female characters. I can’t provide more examples because I don’t read a lot of mainstream fiction anymore, especially if it’s written by middle-aged, straight, cis white men. I feel like I’ve read it all before, over and over. (I should add that I don’t read romance or much “chick-lit” for the same reasons, even though a lot of that is written by women.)

Fair enough. I’d add W.E.B. Griffin to that list, even though it’s speaking critically of the recently deceased.

Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they were good writers.

You can find a ton of articles online with examples of how men have written women poorly. They’re often hilarious, while also sad. When they describe a woman being aware of how her breasts move, you know they’re so entrenched in the view of women as sex objects that they think we actually view ourselves that way.

My mind reels with comic examples of women busy living their lives, punctuated by internal monologue about breast movement.

Yeah. Can’t say I’ve ever experienced that in real life. I mean, what kind of bras are these women wearing? They shouldn’t be moving that much!

I’m told most women are wearing poorly fitting bras. Of course, I’m told that by people who are selling bras.

They do, but even those keep them from swinging around and rubbing against each other.

And the key point, of course, is the tendency for the whole thing to be about the breasts because that’s what the author identifies with femaleness. Or femininity. “Welcome to You Are Your Ta-tas!

Okay. Narrowing the focus for a moment to the portrayals of women, what would you say are the most prevalent flaws–the moments where nearly every female reader rolls her eyes? I say ‘female’ because the reader may well be under the age of eighteen. I understand that this may be slightly redundant, but I’m looking for identifiable trends.

When she cowers and waits for the man to save her. Or when she falls prey to obvious emotional manipulation.

The scene in Captain Marvel (spoiler alert!) when she looks down at her former commander and says, “I have nothing to prove to you,” is possibly the most empowering moment I’ve ever seen on screen. Because every girl and woman has been made to feel like she has to prove herself to a man.

Would it be fair to say that ‘proving oneself’ to the men is another of the prevalent flaws in men’s writing as well as on the screen?

It’s everywhere, in our society as well as our media. That’s why it’s believable when he throws down the weapons and challenges her hand-to-hand.

I didn’t see the movie, but I know that it inspired very polarized reactions. Some of them struck me as comically insecure.

It’s a great movie. One of the best of the MCU, for sure. And any man who has a problem with it should probably get professional help.

I sense that most of the men who feel threatened by the fact that there’s a movie about a superheroine, of which most women and girls seem to approve, aren’t too receptive to help.

What are some obvious early ‘tells’ that inform you there is bad gender writing ahead? The one that comes to my mind is the inability to distinguish girls from women, but you would surely notice more than I would.

I cringe when there’s an excessive emotional response to something because it signals that the author considers women to be over-emotional. If you want to create a character that is highly emotional, it needs motivation–just like anything else. Gender isn’t motivation enough.

I’m pretty selective about who I read, though, and probably 80 percent is by female authors. So I don’t come across it a lot these days.

Oh–something that hasn’t come up that’s important to mention: We need to stop using sexual assault as the default reason for a woman to have emotional or psychological problems. Yes, it’s prevalent in society, but it’s used too often as a convenient and easy explanation. Men get more varied backstories.

Same for domestic violence?

Yeah, domestic violence, too. Along the same lines is having lost a child or having an inability to conceive. Give us motivations that aren’t rooted in the fact that we’re female. Just like a character in a wheelchair may have something to be angry about other than being in a wheelchair, or a person of color might have a chip on their shoulder about something not related to race.

Or if you’re going to use those elements, don’t just make it a throw-away.

I think a similar interview could be done with a reader of color, with equally productive results.

Or a disabled person. Or a non-straight or non-cis person. It’s far too common for one trait to define a character’s entire personality and backstory.

You definitely never want to read Harry Turtledove. Not only are you your difference in Turtledove, but it comes up in every single scene.

Ugh! “Othering” needs to end. If someone can’t recognize the full human experience of someone who’s not exactly like them, they shouldn’t be writing. We all face limitations to understanding other people, but we need to do what we can to overcome them. I know that as a white person, I can’t fully understand what it’s like to be, for example, a brown person in America, but I can pay enough attention to know what issues people of color face, and I can view people of all types as complete people with complex lives and personalities and experiences that aren’t all tied to a small set of characteristics.

Okay, this goes back to characters like Captain Marvel, at the risk of ground already having been trodden. Please think of female protagonists you have encountered in fiction. Can you identify some whose appeal you consider very widespread among women, and tell us what makes them so appealing? One of my favorites is Ari Emory, out of C.J. Cherryh‘s Cyteen series.

It’s hard to deny the appeal of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. She’s capable, independent, brave, and analytical–all traits that are considered typically masculine. She’s also insecure and protective of the people she loves. You might think of that as her softer, more feminine side, but how many books and movies picture men protecting their families? (Die Hard and Taken come to mind.) And insecurity is universal, even though we see it portrayed in women and girls more frequently.

Because that’s how the authors view women and girls, one supposes.

Yep. And because we don’t want our alpha males to show weakness.

Kara Gillian, in Diana Rowland’s Demon Summoner series, is someone I think would appeal to a lot of women. (Those books should really be more popular!) She’s a homicide detective who summons demons on the side. She’s tough, snarky, and intriguing with a mysterious backstory.

What do you think of Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake?

I actually haven’t read her yet, but she’s on my list.

Patricia Briggs‘s Mercedes Thompson, for a localized example?

I’ve read a little of that series. I’ve heard Mercy criticized as an unbelievable female character because she’s too much of a loner and “women need at least one close confidant.” I don’t buy it–I think that’s too stereotypical a view of what a woman is, and that characteristic is believable in the character.

Mercy has a lot in common with the two heroines I’ve mentioned, and that series is wildly popular. Interesting, eh? Amazing what happens when you put a complex, non-stereotypical woman on the page.

Now I would like to look at your own writing experience. I can imagine it going the other way. Do you find it challenging to write male characters in your own fiction?

I don’t, and I don’t think many women do. How many articles have you seen calling out women for unrealistic portrayals of men?

I think the reason for that is complicated. For one, we’re inundated with the male viewpoint all the time, and a disproportionate number of characters we read or watch are males written by males. Second, there’s a pervasive myth in our society that women are mysterious and men will never understand them–so why should they try?

The book I just finished (Plague, which will be out in September) is my first long work with a male protagonist, but I have prominent male characters is all my fiction. I don’t find it hard to relate to that experience because I pay attention to people. I watch, I listen, I learn. I go beyond a small set of traits when imagining who people are.

As a screenwriter, I’ve never had an actor say, “This isn’t how a man would act.”

Here’s the thing about authors who write bad female characters–their men aren’t that much more interesting, either. They’re generally what the author wishes he could be, not honest reflections of the human experience. Readers who like those authors like to see male and female in terms of stereotypes and dated expectations, and they tend to get whiny when their expectations aren’t met.

Is there anything I should have asked you, but didn’t think to?

I don’t think so. We’ve covered a lot of ground.

Indeed. Anything you’d like to add?

I’ve worked it all in already. LOL

Thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts with the readership, Adrienne. Best of success to you in all your creative efforts!

My pleasure, and thank you!

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Why you don’t lie to your editor

Are you surprised to find that some writers lie to the person they hire to help them succeed? Don’t be.

The reading public, which I love nonetheless, at times lacks a clear picture of the author/editor dynamic. In most people’s perceptions, the editor/author relationship is a battle between conflicting views of “what’s best for the book.” I do not operate according to that model. If the client thinks s/he knows better than I do what’s best for his or her book, and began this relationship simply to fight with me, I have better things to do than play the game. Maybe that person just wants to win an argument for ego’s sake, or is simply disagreeable.

(For confirmation: if you go to any message board meant for writers, you’ll see enough ego on display to last you weeks. Let it be known that you’re an editor, and you can begin the countdown to your first typo, and a smug callout from a small mind who considers that s/he has just taken a scalp. They are rarely worth one’s time.)

Perhaps some editors do work in such an adversarial way. I prefer a discussion/consensus model, and I find that the better the writer, the better that works. The best writers crave feedback and specifics, and they will beat both out of me–exactly as they should, if by some lapse I fail to volunteer them. I cannot get away with a terse statement to them like “that’s incorrect.” They want to know my whole reasoning. This in turn makes me a better editor, because I had better not propose anything I’m not willing to defend. And if I don’t also have the solution to offer, I’m in trouble. What good am I if I can’t tell my client how to improve? Better writers make me a better editor. With them, the consensus model works best because the better writers have more grounds for valid counterpoints, which means we can put our heads together for the best outcome. Viewed another way, when someone can’t write and can’t storytell, the person doesn’t have much to defend. I can and will help that person, but he or she doesn’t usually have the ability to debate how things should be.

By now, not much surprises me, but some things disappoint me. I have had clients accept a lot of developmental feedback, then stiff me. My fault, really, for allowing the situation to get to that point. In one case, though, I was deceived from start to beyond the finish. It involved an Alan Smithee, and I think the story can now be told.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Alan Smithee is a pseudonym sometimes seen in cinema credits. It replaces the name of a person who did not want name credit. I use a similar method when I do not want to attach my name to a book, which can be for many reasons. The most common reason is that my client won’t listen to me, and stands firm in believing that s/he knows better, deciding to override my guidance.

Some time back, I heard from a writer with an incredible story to tell. This client, who went by an obvious pseudonym, told me that s/he had met a renegade who supposedly performed blatantly illegal activities at the behest of legally sanctioned individuals, had had a change of heart about those activities, and decided to tell the story. My client was expecting any moment to suffer great retaliation for talking about it (the renegade supposedly being either dead or beyond reach of retaliatory acts). I read the ms. There were minimal specifics about the illegal activities, but lots of sociopolitical rants, and over half the book told the tale of an abusive relationship that had no bearing on the book’s billing. Why did this renegade open up to my client? The answers were vague, where any were forthcoming at all.

I gave my frank impressions: the story’s billing was deceptive, the logic was flawed, the rants were illogical and alienating, the tone was self-serving, and the book wasn’t going to be very good. I wanted much more about the cloak-and-dagger stuff, less about a bad childhood, and much less about a very bad relationship.

My client rejected most of my guidance. S/he was often very coy, the sort of person who won’t just come out and say something, but will drop enough hints to enable one to Google. I was able to verify some of the renegade’s story, though in many cases there seemed to be two sides to that story. The client claimed to have promised the renegade to leave certain parts in; naturally, they were the very worst parts. I did trim out a lot of the fat, and I obtained the addition of a minimal segment of cloak and dagger, but in the end my client only acted on about 15% of my guidance. This client therefore wasted about 85% of the money spent, and I could do nothing about it.

I came to realize that when my copy arrived. (I do not negotiate a complimentary copy, so this was at my instigation. I take pride in being one of the first customers to buy a copy at retail. Seriously, when someone pays you thousands of dollars, the very least you can do is buy your own damn copy from your client.) I shook my head in disappointment. Early reception and sales confirmed my expectations, with those few reviewers calling out the book’s deceptive nature. The positive reviewers were obvious sock puppets. It was all rather sad.

Not long after, my client contacted me: retaliation was coming, might catch me in the target area, and s/he would no longer be able to connect with me by normal means. In so doing, this client dropped enough information to confirm what I had considered 90% certain from the start: the client was also the renegade. All the stuff about getting the renegade to tell his story was twaddle. All the stuff about material the writer had promised the renegade not to alter? Baloney. How challenging it must have been to keep up the whole charade, with the author wondering if I were just playing along, or whether I could possibly be that dumb. Maybe that’s why the client ignored so much of my guidance: going along with the pretense made me look stupid, and thus not to be heeded.

Now, of course, I had much better reason to doubt most aspects of the tale, including its fundamentals. It was not all lies; I had verified a few of the less controversial parts. The renegade was a real person. The illegal activities? I came to believe they were all inventions, and that I didn’t get specifics because the renegade/client didn’t want to author any more fiction. The author’s naive belief was that people would buy a book purportedly full of Shocking Revelations, and not mind when it turned out to be mostly a story of bad childhood and bad relationships, combined with the renegade’s desire to spin the entire story to his/her own glory and the detriment of the renegade’s enemies. Somehow, the client believed that the buyer would not feel scammed.

If the few purchasers felt taken in, I understand that. So do I. If someone isn’t honest with me, it will limit my ability to help that client. In this case, throughout my editing work, I’d had to operate as though accepting the cover story. In reality, I hadn’t been talking to a person who had made an arrangement with a renegade just before that person planned to disappear, and who thus was not a direct participant with no ax to grind. I was talking to the ax-grinder in person, and the ax-grinder had had to supplement lies with more lies.

That simply piles atrocious upon bad and flawed.

Why do that? In the end, I think that the better writer believes that the relationship is about quality, and the worse writer believes that it is about control. The better writer wants to discuss, to hear justification, to brainstorm, to learn, and to produce ever-improving literary product. The worse writer fears a loss of control, and in service of control, may keep secrets. Or tell lies. Or defend the illogical. Or bicker without need. In the end, the worse writer knows his or her work is worse, and that the fundamentals boil down to:

“Well, my client, the bad news is that neither the story nor the writing are very good, but we could fix those.”

“But that’s my style, Mr. Editor! That’s my story!”

“Well, if you insist, then your style and story are bad.”

“I cannot accept that answer. I will keep looking until I find someone who believes in my work.”

“Very good. Best of success to you.”

Allowing major change, the thinking goes, would lose the battle for control. I do not consider that so. Allowing major change would teach the writer to be a much better writer with a more evolved perspective on his or her products, better able to defend decisions and less likely to need to do so.

But if they lie to me, it is fair to say that the percentage of the truth I am told sets an upper ceiling on the percentage of the available good I can do them. And once I learn of the lie in mid-book, while I will finish what I started, there won’t be a second project. I don’t care much for being deceived. I find that most people who live mostly by lies are not offended when caught lying. It’s not the first time, and won’t be the last. They do not expect a consequence if they continue lying; all debunked lies are now water under the bridge. Lie too often, for too long, and it becomes more addictive than an opiate. It becomes reflex, habit, first nature. Before deciding how to answer, the person ceases to ask him or herself ‘what is the actual true answer?’ and asks only ‘what answer would best suit my needs?’

Now, if someone came to me with an explosive tale of intelligence work that would shock the nation to its core, here is the first thing I would say: “Let us have one understanding. What truths you do not wish to tell me, tell me honestly that you will not tell me those, and I will not press you. But do not, even once, tell me a lie. The moment I believe you have is the moment I reserve the right to drop the job like a live grenade. If you cannot live by that agreement, let’s go our separate ways here and now.”

Like anyone else, editors live and learn.

Why it costs what it costs

My line of work involves a lot of sticker shock. I’m sometimes the recipient, as in: I look into a situation, discover that it would require me to work for about $1.75 per hour, and realize that there are people desperate enough to accept that and people ready to exploit that desperation. Other times, I’m the shocker rather than the shockee.

I don’t make public my pricing methodology, but it’s based on the amount of time and effort required to do the job right. That, in turn, is affected most by the size of the job and the depth of attention necessary. Length is always the biggest factor: if someone wants a critical read with suggestions, and the ms is 400 pages long, well, that’s a lot of work. It’s a lot more involved than a 120-page short novel, and will require much more mental juggling to keep track of everything. (That critical read would also be included in an editing job, if that were wanted, as part and parcel. But one must do as one was engaged to do.)

Proofreading is least expensive, because my brain really is not on the storyline, but on catching errors. The author failed to deliver adequate character development? Not my purview. Author made a grammatical error? Fix it and move on. Story is insipid? Not what I was hired to address. Big ton of loose spaces? Fix them. I go over the entire thing at least twice, but that’s simply because I am better at this than other people.

Editing is more expensive, and more variable, because it depends upon what shape the writing is in. Good writing costs less because it may have sentences that can stand without my intervention. Bad writing costs more because I have to make it into good writing. Editing also depends upon length, of course, and on intricacy and complexity. No two are alike, and different mss require different treatments. A one-method-fits-all approach would not help to transform the ms into the best book it can be.

This can mean that I send a ms back to the author with strong suggestions and observations, and suggest some reworking before we get into editing. What I am really saying there is: “This has some flaws I consider lethal. If I fix them for you, in the first place, it will be very expensive. In the second, it will be me supplying the creativity, because a rewrite has no boundaries. I think it’s better if the creativity and flow of ideas are yours; it’s your book. Consult me any time as you go, but I hope you’ll rework this.” If the author can’t or won’t do that, and still wants me to edit it, that’s a problem because I’m not comfortable sending out a fatally flawed book. That means…

…rewriting. I undertake this with great reluctance, but if someone insists and accepts the greatly inflated cost, I may decide to take it. Rewriting happens when either the writing or the story have such severe flaws that plain editing won’t suffice. It’s also rare, because in my experience the worse the writing, the more certain is the author of that writing’s perfection and brilliance. Distilled to the result, the combination of sticker shock and the notion of complete change of even the basic style (which can have no other meaning but “this isn’t good at all”) usually end up sparing me rewriting jobs. And that’s fine, because they are arduous. I would so much rather offer feedback and guidance so that I can simply edit a much-improved ms.

Composition or ghostwriting is the next level up. This happens when I don’t have a ms to work with, just notes or guidelines. Creating that ms is my task. I have done a great deal of it as a contributing author, and I like it well enough, but it’s even more work to do well, and costs even more. It can entail travel, interviewing, purchasing of books, library trips, transcription, and every other manner of research available to me.

Thus, if you’re hoping to keep the price within reason, keep the length within reason. Big book = big project.

New release: _Rock ‘n Roll Heaven_, by Shawn Inmon

Rock ‘n Roll Heaven has been released. This is a medium-length novel focused on the life and times of a fictitious small-time rocker, and in a broader sense the evolution of rock and roll. I was substantive editor.

Its genesis goes back two decades in Shawn’s life, a story he tells in the Author’s Notes. If memory serves, my involvement began about the time he was considering the sequel to his very successful Feels Like The First Time. The opening conversation was inauspicious. Paraphrased:

S: “I want to write a novel about a musician who ends up interacting with all his idols in the afterlife.”

J: “Are you kidding? That’s the loopiest idea I’ve ever heard. It has zero commercial potential. You’re out of your mind.” (I’ve left out the bad words.)

S: “Maybe, but I want to write it anyway. If I do it, will you edit it?”

J: “Of course. If I can’t talk you out of it, I’ll gladly help you make it the best it can be.”

We talked about it for a while, with me not warming to the idea at all. Shawn planned to write about what he loves second only to his wife and children: rock and roll and its history. To me, the whole notion seemed masturbatory, and I told him so. Then what should I do to make it work? Shawn has a gift for asking the right questions. I said that it had better include a story, and a good one.

Shawn is sort of a Veeckian character, a puckish soul with laughing eyes who knows how to let an experience unfold. He’s a great pleasure to work with, because he can take the highest caliber of frankness for which my literary fieldpiece is chambered.

Think about what I did. This is a paying client. I told him the idea was loopy. Then I told him, in cruder terms, that it was self-indulgent, and had no chance to make any money. That’s not what you say when you want the work. At that point, most authors are looking for an editor who believes in the book concept, which means that an editor who doesn’t is Not On Board.

That’s why some authors fail: they focus mainly on people who tell them what they want to hear. They are brilliant, this is the Next Big Thing, etc. They are looking for reassurance and strokes, independent validation of the gushing they got from their spouses and Aunt Sandy. They aren’t looking for someone to tell them they need to improve. Any editor can–and many do–make a living telling novice authors they are brilliant, because it’s what they crave.

Aspiring editors can milk this. Many aspiring writers consider their prose a perfected work of art. Anyone who Fails To Adore simply has no taste, doesn’t get their genius. The less that you say needs to change about their writing, the more credible you are in their eyes. The easy route to good money is to do less work and more sucking up. I’ll even supply the Magic Bullshit (since I’m not using it anyway): “Honestly, I think this is very well written. I can suggest some minor changes, and check for errors, but I love the story.” Just say that. It will mark you as a Believer, and you’ll be hired. Over and over.

Since you won’t do much actual work, you will have quick turnarounds and an airtight explanation: “There wasn’t that much that needed fixing.” Excited would-be authors will preen in delight, seeing that a Real Editor recognizes their genius. The product will be garbage, because the client sought and received sycophancy rather than critique and valuable ideas, but you got paid and your client loved ‘working with’ you. Right?

True confession: I wasn’t completely candid with Shawn. I left out one thing: I was fascinated to see what in hell he would come up with. The man has a Churchillian zigzag lightning streak through his mind, and only a fool would underestimate him. (I no longer do, and am relieved to be less a fool.) Along came the ms, and while I was blunter than usual about some of its issues, it also threw me some invigorating surprises. His research and portrayals of rock legends rang thorough, creative and difficult to predict. Not only did he wrap it around a creditable story, making that story the focal point rather than the rock-and-roll musings, but he redid the opening and hit it off the scoreboard. My work was to keep the strings from showing; let’s hope that readers feel I succeeded at it.

I did one thing differently this time. I normally work in silence broken only by the periodic comments of Alex, my white-eyed conure (a little parrot, bright green). Since the book centered on rock and roll, I felt it irresponsible to edit without background music. It was odd how sometimes the song that played seemed pertinent to my current focus in the narrative.

The creepiest aspect was the author’s notes at the end. I haven’t been asked to edit those before, thank the gods. In this case, for the first time since I’ve worked with Shawn, I found myself perusing his laudatory comments about my work and what it means to his creative process. You tell me: how the hell do you edit someone else’s nice words about yourself? What if you were getting a medal, and were asked to edit the citation that would be read at the ceremony? I prefer ‘as minimally as possible and let’s get the hell out of here,’ and that’s what I did. Or didn’t, one might say. But in spite of my intense embarrassment from the process, Shawn, thanks. Awful kind of you.

R&RH will surprise the reader on several levels. One of Shawn’s last serious questions was the proper Amazon category. Contemporary fantasy? Metaphysical fiction? The truth is a mixture of the two. It contains strong texture and depth on the subject of music and how it is made, but also tells a profound self-discovery story. If you are sick of cloned books, and want something original, I doubt you’ve ever read anything quite like it.

What you might not know about writers, editors and proofreaders

And there’s a lot.

Writers:

  • A surprising number of us are unbearable. Truly. The dirtiest little secret about writers, in my view, is how many of us have some paralytic personality flaw that means we are best off away from polite society. Don’t lament that J.D. Salinger became reclusive; realize that he was probably doing humanity a good deed.
  • What motivates us to write varies from person to person, but one thing is consistent: at one point, we were all terrible, and great irritants to others. Some of us improved.
  • You’d be astonished how much writing is done while drunk. Ernest Hemingway wasn’t so anomalous. I am not convinced James Joyce ever wrote a sober line. Anthony Burgess wrote most of A Clockwork Orange, one of my favorites, through a haze of ethanol. I have sent off work that disturbed me so profoundly that I could not finish drafting it with a clear head.
  • Few of us make any money. That is for several reasons. 1) Most of us cannot market and hate marketing, considering it icky. 2) What many of us want to write is not what many people will pay to read. 3) A lot of us consider ourselves too good to take on the writing that really does pay. 4) In an increasingly less literate nation, we are not exactly in rising demand.
  • Writer’s block, which does not exist unless you author it and dignify it with the name, is not the main bugbear for writers, though it’s a handy excuse for not wanting to write and not desiring to admit that. The main bugbear is ego: the deep-seated fear that one will be exposed as a fake.
  • Pet peeve? People who love to catch me in a simple human error when I’m not in a professional writing situation. “Ha ha! You spelled that wrong!” So petty, so childish, and so lowers my opinion of someone.
  • Writers with no senses of humor about themselves and their foibles are beyond retrieval.

Editors:

  • Editors come in many levels of competency. There are no certifications.
  • When you communicate with us in writing, most of us aren’t mentally correcting your grammar and spelling. People have to pay us to do that. If no one is paying, that means no one wants us doing that. Nothing is gained by doing it for free just to be an ass, or because we can. That’d just alienate people. Some damned smart people are ESL, or have disabilities, stuff like dyslexia, or various other reasons they aren’t great typists or grammarians.
  • Not every editor is right for every writer. For example, I am not a good editor for someone who can’t write and cannot face that reality when presented with tact. I just have to live with that.
  • Editors who take pleasure in hammering stakes into writers’ work are unprofessional and shortsighted. They exist. They are addicted to that self-absorbed jolly they get from a well-crafted misericord run up under the writer’s ribs. Most can’t make any money editing. We call those ‘Amazon reviewers.’ They are competent to point out flaws, but evidently incompetent to help authors remedy them.
  • Editing processes can vary a great deal from editor to editor and from project to project. For example, if on the initial evaluation, I am sent an outdated version of a ms, then an updated version, the value of my work is gutshot because once I begin reading for the first time and thinking, a new version will require me to doubt every ‘feel’ that I gained, for I cannot get a truly clean second set of first impressions. For others, that’s not a problem.
  • Before you snark that the author “obviously didn’t hire a competent editor,” consider this: you have no idea what the ms looked like before the editor got to work. You also have no idea how many edits were rejected by the author. It may have been so bad that the editor asked for Alan Smithee credits and didn’t get that courtesy.
  • Editors without senses of humor about themselves and their work cannot be saved. Take them behind the barn, and return without them.

Proofreaders:

  • We are born, not made. I know of no way to make someone care about precision and minutiae, nor to train them to do so.
  • Our processes vary, as do our competencies. My own is simple: I do it all twice at least. And if on the second pass I find anything of significance, I do it a third. A fourth and fifth, if need be. My credibility and value lie in missing nothing. For a good proofreader, a solitary mistake is unacceptable.
  • Proofreading may at times verge into light editing. The ability to handle that shift with minimal effort is a valuable thing.
  • As with editors, before you snark that the proofreader obviously did the job high on meth, bear in mind that publishers can blunder so monumentally as to publish unedited versions of a given ms. It happened to Allen Barra, a very capable author who could reasonably have expected better from a prominent publishing house. If the product is defective, the publisher is at fault. It was the publisher’s duty to assure that there were zero errors in the publication-ready ms.
  • To be a capable proofreader, you have to enjoy finding errors. To get paid to do it, you have to learn not to spike that particular ball in the end zone. You are in the business of telling people they did it wrong. No one is having fun when that happens, or if you are, no one will want to work with you. You need not apologize for doing your job well, but if you exult in all your catches, people will hate you.
  • Proofreaders who can’t face the fact that even they will miss mistakes are doomed. Do what I do: utter a sentence full of shocking blasphemies and gutter vulgarities, apologize and abase yourself, and move on. And don’t ever miss one again!

But you will.

How a crazy busy ‘lancing day looks

Freelancing is like Starfleet at times. Weeks of boredom and maintenance, a day or so of holycrapIhaveatonofstufftodo. Today was one of those days, so let’s walk you through it.

Morning. Finish second and final editing pass on true-life romance manuscript. What? If people hire me to edit their work, it usually gets edited at least twice? Am I that inefficient? No, that’s not the issue. On the first pass, I fix everything that’s obvious, but about halfway through I have spotted some trends, and realize that in the early going, unaddressed instances of those trends exist. I must normalize these so that the overall editing is consistent. In the ideal world, I would make the book sound like the author, only smoother. With good writing, one can do that. When it’s not so good, if it sounded like the author, well, they don’t pay me to maintain mediocrity. This one was pretty good even before I got my inky paws on it. Finish around 2 PM. Refuse to send it off. Want one more quick whirlwind read before I sign off on it as completed work. I hate making any mistakes.

During morning, receive inquiry from fiction author about rates and editing. Exchange e-mails. We agree that author will send me ms, I’ll look it over, I’ll sample edit a few pages and send it back along with a quote. This one will be somewhere between editing and rewriting, so there may be sticker shock, but if you want a great book that’s what it’ll cost. Receive and begin sample edit. I can’t tell what a ms really needs until I sit down and actually edit some of it.

Early afternoon, hear from author of true-life romance ms, who is about as calm and patient waiting for me to send him the finished work as he probably was when his children’s mother was eased onto the obstetric bed to have his first daughter. He is stuck on his blurb, which is his least favorite aspect of readying a book, and randomly mentions that if only someone would just take $x and do it, he’d be happy. With calm irony, I mention how unfortunate it is that he doesn’t happen to know anyone who writes for money. My author is not a fool. I advise him, however, that his price is outrageously high and that I won’t do it for more than $.6x. He complains that it’s well worth $x to him, and wants to pay that. I remain impassive and unmoving; $.6x, not a penny more. Unfortunately, I have no leverage, as in the end I can’t prevent him from writing a check that overpays me, so if that happens, I’ll just have to smile and thank him. However, he still only owes me $.6x for it. Let’s not forget that. In the process I learn that his wife–whose story he is writing as told to him–is enchanted at the many new words I have coined from her name. Encouraged, I start to lean into that and make a real effort to coin them just for fun. I like her story, and I respect the candor of her narrative.

Real life intervenes: wife has just come from home inspection for our soon-to-be own private Idaho. Problems are relatively minor, but here’s a chance to extract from the seller a little of her own overly hard bargaining. Drop everything, attend to review, discussion, and authoring of letter to real estate agent presenting a suggested offer regarding home’s flaws. Make wifely corrections. Day is crazy. Miss Big Brother premiere. “Sorry, dear, buying your dream home is less important than watching a really trashy reality show,” said no happy husband ever. Will watch later online. Someday.

Make grocery run. Welcome break. Buy the usual unhealthy stuff, though at least I’m eating less of it lately.

Whirlwind final review of romance ms, then birth the baby and hand it to author. Pretty sure author drops everything else in his world, except the woman about whom the story tells, to examine ms. I hear nothing back, so he’s probably happy. He’s probably still awake reading it as I write this, after midnight.

Not even close to done for day. Finish sample edit on fiction ms, so as to have eyes-off time to review tomorrow for presentation to author.  Reckon I’m on the right track.

Time for physical therapy. Having discovered that during 2/3 of the exercises I can read a book or magazine, I get in some reading on a travel bio sent me for review by a pleasant Australian DJ. When I’m sent a review copy, my rule is that it’s automatically at the top of the stack until I finish it and post a review. To me, that’s just simple fairness and gratitude to the author. Just about finish it as I am doing resisted hamstring curls–it’s not a thick book, in fact not as thick as I wish it were. By now it’s 11:30 PM, and in some form, I have been at work for twelve hours.

Still not done. A blog entry is way overdue. Regular readers don’t know I was in Idaho for three days with a 4.5 hour drive each way, and unless they’re personal friends, may not be moved by that. They just know nothing’s happening here. This cannot be tolerated, and I am somewhat understandably a bit tired, so I pull up WordPress and begin a blog entry. About what? Remember, there is no writer’s block. You want to write or you don’t. Obviously I want to write at this time, because I refuse not to write. Then decide that a busy literary day might be interesting to concierges, engineers, nurses, electricians, homemakers, lawyers, game wardens, activists, campground managers, cashiers, and all the other folk who take time to read what I write. I put on some rap and get to work.

At half past midnight, my workday is done. Productive day. If this was my every day, I’d have a lot less spare time, but I’d deal.

Good morning, dear reader.